Startup Diaries: The Queen Of Contra

Anita Skinner, Founder of Not So Skinny BitchAnita Skinner is a Publisher and lives in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada with her husband, Dan. She previously owned a magazine called Niagara Life, which she sold in 2004 to a large Canadian media conglomerate – Torstar, despite having had no formal training in the publishing industry. She started her publishing life by producing a small newsletter, called The Downtowner, for a residents’ association she started in 1984.

Anita spoke to The NextWomen about her new venture: Not So Skinny Bitch which provides stylish, comfortable, practical women's plus size sports wear.

I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging, but I am the perfect example of someone that can make something from nothing. I’ve never had the advantage of having money to finance my endeavours so I’ve had to start small, real small, and build gradually.

One of my favourite ways to conserve cash is contra (barter). In fact, I’ve always called myself ‘The Queen of Contra’. For example, the usual way that publications deal with space that is unsold at the time of deadline is to have a ‘remnant sale’, selling the space at discounted prices.

I didn’t feel that it was right to sell discounted space to a company that was not one of my loyal advertisers. Instead, I would look around my house and if, for example, I needed a ceiling fan, I would approach a business to trade a fan for advertising space. That way, I would not discount my advertising space – and, over a number of years I spent nearly $25,000 barter dollars renovating our home!

I don’t know what it’s like in other countries but, in Canada, it is next to impossible to get financing from conventional banks unless you’ve been in business at least 2-3 years and you’re willing to surrender your first-born. Our national business development bank is pretty much useless as well – at least that’s been my experience with them over the years.

Life after Niagara Life

After I sold my magazine in 2004, my husband convinced me to take up golf. He had joined a club near our home and encouraged me to join him, saying it was something we could do together when we travelled, and perfect for us now that we were empty-nesters (our daughter, Martha, had grown up and left home).

Reluctantly, I agreed. He had joined a private golf club near our home, the epitome of everything I feared. I was unable to find stylish plus-size women’s golf wear so I resorted to wearing my ¾ length sleeve cotton T-shirts with casual pants and capris.

How would you feel if you joined a sports team only to find out that the uniform didn’t come in your size and you had to wear something different from the rest of the players?

That is how I felt and how it feels for many women over size 14 (US/Canada sizing) that want to golf or participate in other physical activities. Many of them don’t participate and stay at home, some wear ordinary cotton or polyester tops and some wear men’s golf shirts.

IDEA!!!

While golfing with my husband one day, I was having trouble making a shot when he called out to me, “Just think of that skinny bitch!” I hit the ball and it went flying! And, just like that, I came up with my first idea: an online magazine called Not So Skinny Bitch that would help plus-size women find stylish and flattering golf and athletic wear. Unfortunately, I was unable to find anything that I felt comfortable recommending.

Over the next year, my idea evolved. I decided that I had no choice but to design a line of golf and athletic apparel for regular to plus-size women. It would be called Not So Skinny Bitch and it would be made in Canada from the finest performance fabric available and tailored to flatter and shape the female figure. No baggy tent-like clothing – my styles would show off the figure, not make it look worse with shapeless styles.

One has only to do a Google search for plus-size fashion bloggers to see that there is an uprising among larger women against a fashion industry that is not only ignoring the huge market that exists, it is deliberately avoiding it.

Why? Many designers simply do not want their fashions seen on women over size 10. Forget the fact that more than 56% of North American women (probably close to that amount in many countries) are size 14 or larger and have money to spend. They don’t care.

I believe that every woman, regardless of their size, deserves fashion that makes them look and feel fabulous. That is what drives me. I believe that with all my heart and that is why, at 61 years of age, I am challenging the status quo.

I am certainly not an expert when it comes to explaining how to succeed at starting and building a successful business.

In my limited experience, I have found that a successful business must be led by someone that has passion for the business.

The level of commitment required to be successful is enormous – that’s why the percentage of successful businesses is so small.

Starting Up

I didn’t have any background in fashion design or retail. At least, I had no formal training. But, I did learn a lot from my mother. She was an amazing seamstress and had a beautiful wardrobe. Her dream was to be a fashion designer in Paris. Growing up in Greece during World War II, my mother made dresses and suits for wealthy women in Athens. If she hadn’t met my father … who knows? It’s sad that she’s already gone because she would have loved being part of my fashion business.

I spent a lot of time with my mom in fabric shops, pouring over pattern books and looking through dozens of bolts of fabric so that I could have a spectacular dress for the upcoming Friday night high school dance. I would beg my mom, on a Monday or Tuesday, to sew a dress for me by Friday; she never said no.

I was very nervous about starting a business at my age – I can’t really afford to make any mistakes. My husband has a lot of faith in my ability though, and has always encouraged me to go ahead with my ideas. So, I began with a personal investment of about $8,000.

I applied to the business development bank I mentioned earlier but, once again, was turned down – after two months of leading me to believe I would get the financing I required. I was devastated! Then, I got angry. I decided to go ahead anyway.

Back to the drawing board – I would have to revise my business plan. $8,000 isn’t very much when you’re launching a new fashion label so I decided to start by designing two shirts, the most difficult piece of athletic wear for larger women to find. Then, I hired a Canadian production house to coordinate the patternmaking, sampling and production process for me.

Two hundred shirts – the Polo with a Twist and the Foxy Lady – were produced in three colour combinations: hot pink/black, turquoise/black and white/black in sizes 12 to 22. Both shirt styles can be worn for almost any sport including golf, tennis, cycling, and running. The Foxy Lady can also be worn as a dressy top, providing even more value for the women buying it.

You have to be creative.

Armed with two beautiful shirt styles (my 2013 collection!), I created a database of Ontario golf courses, had a logo designed, 2000 business cards and marketing material printed, made appointments and starting making sales. That was August, 2012.

It wasn’t the way I had hoped I would start the business. I had originally planned to launch with eight other pieces.

I thought the golf professionals wouldn’t take me seriously, that they would laugh at me for having only two shirts in my collection.

But, thankfully, it was nothing like that. They said I was going about this the right way – starting small with two shirts and Ontario golf courses and expanding gradually. I was blown away by the response.

Because my financial resources were so limited, when it came time to take orders for this spring, I asked my clients for 50% deposit on confirmation of their order. By doing so, I was able to meet the requirements of my production house. You have to be creative when you’re undercapitalized!

Since last August, I have sold over 600 shirts and Not So Skinny Bitch is carried at over 30 golf clubs across Ontario. Not bad, I guess, for my first season in the business. My clients say that my enthusiasm is infectious (that’s what my advertisers used to say as well) – it’s hard for them to say “no” to me. They love that I am so excited about my product.

Now, the fun begins.

Now, I’m busy completing the design of the 2014 collection.  I’m really excited that I’m going to be able to expand the line to include a skirt, capris, pants and a jacket. I will also be adding more colours and expanding the size range to 10-24 from 12-22. As I had hoped to start Not So Skinny Bitch with this collection, it means a great deal to me to be preparing for its launch next April.

Samples are now being made for preview at my first industry trade show in November.  I just bought a 6-foot tall, plus-size mannequin – no kidding! I’m calling her ‘Foxy’ after our Foxy Lady shirt. I think she’ll be very noticeable in my 5’ x 10’ booth! Check her out on Not So Skinny Bitch’s Facebook page (and like me, please!).

My wholesale sales period is coming up between November and March. Once the samples of the new line are produced, photographs will be taken, sales and marketing materials will be created, databases will be expanded to include golf courses and tennis clubs beyond Ontario, and additional media outlets will be added. I’m going to be very busy.

Currently, the wholesale business is generating almost all of the income for the business. The website is still fairly new – it was launched this May and already there have been 21 sales to women across Canada. The response from the ladies has been overwhelming – they love the way my clothing makes them look and feel. 

Although I haven’t made any sales outside Canada yet, I have received email inquiries from ladies in England, Scotland and Australia. I can ship all over the world so I’m hoping to develop a client base beyond Canada soon.

It’s important to stand for something.

I believe it is important for Not So Skinny Bitch to stand for something more than just women’s golf and athletic apparel.

Through blogs by myself and other professionals and individuals, my website supports and encourages women to “get out there and play” and enjoy the activities that they may have shied away from because of negative body image.

I hope to build a community of women, of all ages and all sizes, who are committed to making things better for each other and for the young girls that follow us.

One Year Later

So, I have just ended my first year in business. When I launched Not So Skinny Bitch one year ago, my research indicated that there was a market for my product. One year later, I have proof that the market exists. And, 2014 looks very promising!

I have missed the fever pitch of achieving sales goals and running a successful business and am happy now that I have made Not So Skinny Bitch my new life’s passion. My goal is to build the business until I am able to sell it for millions!

Anita Skinner spent her childhood in southern Ontario, and then moved to the United States with her family. When she was 16, her parents and siblings became American citizens. She refused to do so and, at age 20, moved back to Canada on her own. She attended Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario where she met and married her husband, Dan Skinner.

Ms. Skinner has been a successful business woman in the Niagara Region of Ontario, Canada for the past thirty years. She has been the recipient of a number of awards including the Canada 125 Medal and the Niagara Entrepreneur of the Year Award. Ms. Skinner is well known in her community for her tireless enthusiasm.  

Sign Up to our Newsletter

So you enjoy The NextWomen. Why not sign up to our monthly newsletter?
You get a Letter from the CEO :-), the chance to catch up with the best of our recent articles - and some extra things we throw in once in a while.

We try hard for smart reading.